OAKLAND, Calif. -- On Saturday night, Kevin Durant played basketball.
The Warriors also played basketball and they beat the Pelicans 123-101, stretching their winning streak to 14 games, but that’s not what matters here. It doesn’t matter for a bevy of factors (the Warriors already locked up the No. 1 seed in the West, and Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins all sat out with non-serious injuries, which made this the equivalent of a scrimmage), but the main reason is that Durant overshadowed everything else that happened at Oracle Arena -- including Drake sitting courtside with Warriors GM Bob Myers and for a few brief moments, abandoning him.
For the first time since he suffered a sprained MCL and bone bruise on Feb. 28, Durant participated in an NBA basketball game, making his long-awaited return to the court after missing the past 19 games. Durant started and led the team with 31 minutes. In that time, he scored 16 points on 6-of-15 (0-of-4 from 3) shooting. He added 10 rebounds and six assists.
After, Durant said he didn’t feel nervous heading into the game. He said he wasn’t antsy. He was just excited.
“It felt normal again,” Durant said. “I’m a basketball player. I love playing basketball. That’s my favorite thing to do. So to feel like I’m a part of the team, to feel like I’m a part of this energy that we have, it feels great.”
Kevin Durant is back. You could tell by the way Oracle reacted when the first member of the starting lineup was introduced. Fire was included. You could tell by the way the crowd responded when Durant touched the ball for the first time.
“There was definitely a buzz, a basketball world knowing that Kevin Durant’s coming back,” said Pelicans guard Quinn Cook.
And you could tell by the way the Warriors’ first possession ended.
Durant immediately announced his arrival with a dunk. As CBS Sports’ Matt Moore pointed out, we should probably “be careful with the ‘HE’S BACK!’ stuff” because “injuries are more than the first little bit.” Moore is right, of course. Coming back from a serious injury is almost never simple. One dunk doesn’t mean the injury is completely a thing of the past.
But with that said, did you see the turnaround dunk he threw down? In that moment, he definitely looked healthy and unaffected by his knee.
“You get a dunk on the first play of the game, no matter how long you’ve been out, that feels good,” Durant said.
But fireworks didn’t follow. Durant struggled with his shot, almost like he sat on the sidelines for more than a month. After that dunk, he made only one more shot in the first half, though he opened up the third quarter with back-to-back field goals and nailed his final jumper of the night in the fourth quarter.
There’s no real reason to be concerned about his lackluster shooting performance. First, he’s Kevin Durant and Kevin Durant should never be worried about his ability to make shots.
“I know you guys judge players off makes and misses, but I wasn’t even coming to the game worrying about how many shots I’d make,” Durant said.
And second, as Steve Kerr noted before the game, Saturday wasn’t about Durant’s shooting.
“I told him defensive rebounding,” Kerr said. “I’m not concerned with the offense, for good reason. He’s going to score points. Even if he is not shooting well, he’s going to score points. The whole thing, when we start our playoff series next week, is we have to be locked in defensively. That has to be his focus tonight and the next two nights before Game 1.”
Durant racked up 10 boards. The Warriors out-rebounded the Pelicans -- again, a team missing its two best bigs -- by 19. So, mission accomplished. Durant and the Warriors did what they were supposed to in downing a bad, short-handed team.
He also exceeded expectations in terms of his workload. If Saturday was mainly about getting back into rhythm, Durant had his chance to do exactly that. Before the game, Kerr said that he couldn’t “imagine in his first game back we will run him huge minutes.”
Kerr ended up giving Durant the most minutes on the team. Durant agreed with Kerr’s decision to cap his minutes at 31, but admitted he felt like he “could keep playing.”
“Kevin wants to play 48 minutes every night, so we have to tell him he’s not allowed to do that,” Kerr said. “But 31 was about as high as I could’ve imagined going with him. He wanted to keep going. But I think that was about the right number.”
“To come back that fast ...” Draymond Green said. “He wasn’t huffing or puffing out there or anything.”
Also of note: Klay Thompson appeared to be unbothered by Durant’s presence, leading the team in shot attempts with 16 (he only made 5, though) and points with 20.
“He can fit in any system,” Thompson said. “You can plug him on any team in this league and he’s going to be an amazing player out there. So, there’s no adjustment really.”
More questions will be answered Monday night, when the Warriors host the Jazz. Curry is expected to play after sitting out Saturday’s game with a knee contusion, which means we’ll find out how the two stars mesh together after Curry put up prolific numbers with Durant off the floor. And really, that is the big question that still needs answering. The Warriors are undoubtedly a better team with Durant, but can Curry maintain his prolific output with another elite scorer on the floor?
For now, though, the Warriors can breathe a big sigh of relief. Their MVP -- well, one of them -- is back. He has two more games to shake off the remaining rust before the results begin to matter again. The Death Star is fully operational.
Kevin Durant is playing basketball again.